The Plague, the Promise, the Play

Oberammergau Passion Play theater

Suffering through a pandemic is anything but new. Europe suffered a number of plagues over the centuries with fewer medical advances and no promise of a vaccine to ward off the devastation.

During the Thirty Years War (1616-1648) another such plague rolled across the continent. The small village of Oberammergau had remained unscathed until 1632-33 when a traveling citizen returned and brought the disease with him. It was not long before 81 townsfolk were dead, about half their population. The town council got together and prayed. As part of their plea, they asked the Lord to spare the village of any more deaths and they would honor him with a passion play every decade. The deaths ceased and the first performance was given by the townspeople in 1634.

True to their word, the people of Oberammergau have been providing a Passion Play for almost 400 years. The first six plays were presented in years ending in four (1634,1644…) until 1680 when they switched to years ending in zero. The play has only been cancelled outright twice, 1770 when Elector Maximillion III Joseph claimed that religion was not for theater, and 1940 during WWII.

There have been a few times when the play needed to be performed off cycle due to war or bans. The 2020 performance has been postponed to 2022 because of the COVID 19 pandemic. Ironically the 1920 performance was also postponed to 1922. That was to permit time for Germany’s economic recovery after WWI.

In the 400 years of the Oberammergau Passion Play tradition, there have been some notable footnotes. A special 300 anniversary celebration was planned in 1934 as the Nazi party was coming into power. The Nazi’s wanted the play to emphasize the Jewish participation in the death of Christ and wanted the script changed. They also had “Deutschland ruft dich!” (“Germany is calling you!”) added to the publicity posters. However, the script was never changed and the play continued as previously written.

It was not until 1990 that married and older women could perform. The performing men must start growing their beards a full year in advance of the play to look authentic in their roles. And if you were thinking about applying for a part, only citizens of Oberammergau can be involved. Moving there temporarily does not work either since residency must be held for 20 years or you must be born there.

My husband and I attended the 2010 performance. As luck would have it, we saw the very last play of the season. Barber shops stayed open that entire night to help the men shed their Passion Play beards. It was quite a party!

It may not be prudent to encourage you to attend the last show in October since the play runs from May to October of the performance years but we were able to scoop up some terrific deals. The outdoor arena can be chilly at that time but they were selling their blankets for half price in order to delete inventory. Also, the next morning, as we strolled by shops, a shopkeeper stopped us to hand me a donkey figurine. I politely told him no and waved him off since I had no intention of buying it and he insisted on giving it to me for free. It became a gift for my granddaughter. Oberammergau is also known for its wood carvings and we bought our cuckoo clock there. 

Since the 2020 performance has been rescheduled for 2022, there is still time to join a group to see the Passion Play for yourself. I know Luther Tours has been advertising a number of different tours that include the play.  My husband and I went with a tour sponsored by the Lutheran Hour when we went in 2010.

Oberammergau is a delightful historical stop for German adventures even if you happen to stop there when there is no Passion Play.

Beautiful floral-laden cemetery.

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